The fight between craft brewers and Big Beer (i.e. MillerCoors & Budweiser) has been ongoing for years. Ever since craft beer came to prominence in the late ‘90s, it has been stealing Big Beer’s share of the marketplace. In fact, craft beer has celebrated double-digit growth each year since then. In response, Big Beer has embarked on a course of action to recapture its share of the market.
In order to do so, certain members of Big Beer have acquired certain independent craft breweries, seemingly adopting the old adage, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” or in this case, “buy ‘em.” Now, by all means, mergers and acquisitions are part of business, and that’s fair play. But MillerCoors may have crossed the line when it decided to rebrand its Keystone brand as STONE, quickly catching the attention of craft brew powerhouse Stone Brewing, prompting Stone to file a complaint against MillerCoors in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California.
The complaint, which alleges trademark infringement, false designation of origin, trademark dilution, unfair competition, and declaratory relief, asserts that Stone Brewing has the exclusive right to utilize STONE in the brewing space. In fact, Stone has been utilizing STONE in conjunction with beer since as early as 1996, and subsequently registered the mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1998. Stone is one of the most well-known craft breweries in the industry and the ninth-largest independent craft brewer in the United States. It has even been recognized as the “All-Time Top Brewery on Planet Earth.”
MillerCoors, on the other hand, is a multinational beer conglomerate formed after a series of mergers involving Miller, Coors, and Canadian brewing conglomerate Molson. Keystone and Keystone Light is just one of many brands in MillerCoors portfolio. In general, the Keystone brand is regarded as sub-premium beer, which was formerly marketed in conjunction with the mark KEYSTONE and generally featuring imagery of the Colorado Rocky Mountains in the background. However, after Keystone’s sales dropped by approximately 25% from 2011 to 2016, and was named by USA Today as one of the “Beers Americans No Longer Drink,” MillerCoors opted to rebrand Keystone as STONE. Stone refers to the rebranding as an “aggressive second phase of the company’s pincer move against craft beer and Stone in particular.”
According to Stone, since the rebranding, which includes new cans, boxes, and logos emphasizing STONE as its primary mark, MillerCoors has launched a “viral marketing campaign that touts Keystone’s self-proclaimed new name,” and which “strategically plac[es] Keystone beer cans so that only ‘STONE’ is prominently displayed to viewers.” And if those allegations aren’t bad enough, Stone points out that MillerCoors encountered these same issues over a decade ago when it attempted to register STONES as a trademark and the USPTO refused the application because the examining attorney concluded the mark was confusingly similar to STONE. Still, MillerCoors has revived its attempt to rebrand Keystone with complete disregard of the USPTO’s prior conclusion. Although it’s almost certain that MillerCoors will have an explanation, whether believable or not, regarding the foregoing matters, this is highly favorable evidence for Stone.
Stone has not hidden behind its attorneys regarding this lawsuit. Just the other day Stone co-founder, Greg Koch, released a video on the internet expressing Stone’s frustration with the conduct of MillerCoors and indicating that Stone intends to vindicate its rights. Stone’s counsel also indicated that unless an immediate resolution is reached between the parties, Stone intends to pursue a preliminary injunction that would preclude MillerCoors from utilizing any of its new STONE branding until the case has concluded. Frankly, for all intents and purposes, that motion could be dispositive of the case, as the Court will be forced to make a determination regarding whether the Keystone rebranding is likely to cause consumer confusion. Regardless of which direction the Court comes out on that issue, it seems unlikely that the losing party will be able to sway the Court the other direction at trial, which would likely result in the parties negotiating a resolution.
We will be keeping a close eye on this matter as it progresses and will provide periodic updates. In the meantime, check out Greg Koch’s YouTube video where Koch represents that MillerCoors can “end all of this right here and now” if it just puts “the KEY back in KEYSTONE.” In my opinion, MillerCoors should probably listen to Koch as it seems they have a heavy burden to bear.